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North Carolina and Old Christmas

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Old Christmas at the Outer Banks

Although there are Old Christmas (January 6th) observances held across the State of North Carolina, the Outer Banks region of North Carolina is best known for holding on to their Old Christmas traditions. Rodanthe is said to have the biggest party of all. Every year the community comes together for a day of festivities that include as the main attraction—oysters!

All the steamed oysters you can eat!

All the steamed oysters you can eat!

Rodanthe's Big Party

The party starts at one in the afternoon with an oyster shoot. That is like a turkey shoot only the winners take home a half-bushel of oysters instead of a turkey. Oysters are roasted all day and into the evening until the revelers cannot eat another one, and then at 6 PM a chicken and pastry supper is served. After supper the band tunes up and the crowd enjoys music and dancing. To add to the spirit of goodwill the Fairhaven United Methodist Church youth group donates treat bags for Santa to give out to the children.

The high point of the celebration is not the appearance of Santa Claus, even though he comes to hand out the treats. It is the appearance of Old Buck that the Old Christmas celebrators anticipate once supper is done and the music starts. Based on the legend of a wild bull that terrorized the community in days gone by, the “ghost” of Old Buck has been crashing the Rodanthe Old Christmas Party at least since the 1940s. Old Buck comes in dancing and running around and causing a ruckus with some partiers chasing him, and sometimes tackling him to the floor. It’s all in fun.

John Edgar Herbert, Jr. played the part of Old Buck for many years. After his death his son inherited the role.

What Is Old Christmas?

A little history lesson may be needed to explain what Old Christmas is all about. It goes back to the year 1582 when the inefficient and inaccurate Julian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar by Catholic European countries. Protestant Europe kept the old Julian calendar for almost 200 years longer because they “would not have the pope tell them what to do.”

Because of the way the calendars worked, by the time England came around to adopting the new calendar in 1752 they were eleven days off from rest of Europe. They dropped the eleven days, and Christmas was moved back to December 25th from January 6th. The people believed the eleven days had been stolen from them. Riots erupted in some cities with the people screaming, “Give us back our eleven days!”

The news of the change did not reach the colonists living in North Carolina until well after 1752. They continued celebrating on the old Christmas day, ignoring the new date even after they received the news. England did not care and violence was avoided.

Colonial North Carolinians had a reputation for enjoying any excuse for a good party. As time went by the Gregorian calendar became accepted. Rather than changing the date of Christmas, we saw it as an opportunity for a longer holiday. Many communities celebrated Christmas on both dates, and some just celebrated all the way through for the whole two weeks. On the Outer Banks, some communities held one date as a religious day and others celebrated in a more secular manner. Depending on one’s inclination, people visited back and forth between towns, managing to hold religious services in one place and the more celebratory observance in another.

Eastern NC Old Christmas and Oysters Go Together


Old Christmas in the Mountains

In other parts of the State some interesting Old Christmas traditions have survived over the centuries. One of those traditions is called Breaking Up Christmas, which is best known in the mountain region of the Tarheel State. In the old days, with winter being a slow time of year the people just kept on celebrating from December 25 until January 6, taking turns hosting music, dancing, and feasting at one another’s homes. In an interview by Leda Hartman, Paul Sutphin, guitar player with the band, “The Smokey Valley Boys,” said that the host family would move the furniture outdoors, cook a big meal and the musicians stood in the doorway to make more room inside for dancing. Breaking Up Christmas parties are still held in various places in Western North Carolina and Tennessee.

A fiddle tune was written by an unknown songwriter to honor the Breaking Up Christmas tradition:

“Hooray, Jack and Hooray John,

Breaking up Christmas all night long.

Way back yonder, a long time ago,

Way down yonder alongside the creek,

I seen Santy Claus washing his feet.

Santa Claus come, done and gone,

Breaking up Christmas right along.”

The Old Christmas date is observed in the church as the Day of Epiphany, the day the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The mountain folk tell the story that in honor of the Christ child at the stroke of midnight on Twelfth Night Eve the barnyard animals can be seen kneeling, and no matter how cold the weather the elderberry bushes will bloom. Other old traditions include are not removing ashes from the fireplace or changing the bed sheets during the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 through January 6th. To do so was believed to invite bad luck for the coming year.

To get a feel for Old Christmas traditions visit Old Stone House in Granite Quarry, North Carolina during the holiday. The building, built in 1766, is the oldest in Rowan County. Visitors can tour the house and watch costumed guides demonstrate old time customs, listen to period music, and see how Christmas was celebrated during the colonial period.

Breaking Up Christmas

Questions & Answers

Question: Do they believe in Christmas trees?

Answer: Christmas trees were not common until the mid-1800s in America. So, they wouldn't have been part of the Old Christmas decor when it was first celebrated in the 1700s. I am sure it is now used by those who are celebrating Old Christmas, too.

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith


Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on December 18, 2019:

Thanks for your comment Tim. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on December 18, 2019:

Thanks, Donna. This was fun to read and enlightening. I've known people who celebrate Old Christmas, but I didn't know about all of these details. The true story about Old Buck was funny, but the next time we visit the mountains, we will stop at that location you mentioned. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on December 18, 2019:

I am happy my article is helpful!

Miebakagh57 on December 18, 2019:

I was doing a research on the origin of christmas celebration and, I found your article informative. And I am still writing and researching it. I hope to published the article next year. Thank you for a job well done.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on January 07, 2019:

We had our oysters Sat. with about 30 family and friends! It was a great time. Thanks for commenting, John.

John Morgan on January 06, 2019:

Old Christmas stories were shared with me by my Uncle..... I remember the Oysters being prepared.

Abigail Crowe on December 17, 2013:

Thanks For Posting

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on January 01, 2012:

Thank you, Judy, for sharing your family's Old Christmas Traditions with us. Happy New Year!

judy on December 31, 2011:

My parents were from Daisy county Kentucky, they moved to Western NY; between Buffalo and Rochester after WWII to find work. They told tails of "Old Christmas". They would sneek to others houses and they would call out Old Christmas and the neighbor would have to give a gift of somekind. This was a tradition of that part of Kentucky. And black-eyed peas, and opening the doors,front to let in the new year, back to let the old year out.

erin on November 29, 2011:

maravins are so allsome they have mashoins

emma on November 29, 2011:

it is allsome

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 29, 2011:

Just came across this, very interesting. I can't imagine all you can eat oysters. lol Sounds great though.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on December 31, 2010:

Congratulations Jerry!

Jerry Jr. on December 31, 2010:

I was there in 2010 I won three bags going for FOUR on Jan. 8 2011

jdove-miller on November 28, 2010:

Very interesting. I'd never heard the story behind Old Christmas. Thanks for clearing up a question no one had answered for me before.

Barbara Sutton on December 17, 2008:

Thanks for the info. My granddaughter will love it.

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